In an older section of the hospital next to tall and drafty windows I sat on a chair beside the bed of a grey haired woman. She was sitting upright, her thin and stooped shoulders covered in a pale blue cardigan. Her eyes were milky and unseeing. I broke open medication packaging and poured pills into her hand.
“What’s the weather like outside?” She asked.
“It’s trying to snow.” I told her.
“Snow! I love how snow smells. So clean and fresh and full of expectation.”
She turned blind eyes towards me. “I haven’t been able to see in over 20 years, but when I smell something I can see my memories as clear as if time stood still and my eyes were looking at it, just like yours are right now.”
She swallowed the pills with a sip of water.
“Where are you from?” I asked her.
“I’m from here. I married a wonderful man and we just never felt like we needed to move away.”
There was a pause. Now, I know that she was like a diver at the edge of the board, wondering if she really wanted to jump. The words came quickly when she told me, “We had three children. Two sons and a daughter. She died, my daughter, when she was 22, in a car accident.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
She patted my hand, like she didn’t want me to feel bad. I was thinking about my own child, gone longer now than he was here. I could have told her and sometimes I do tell patients, but this was a time when I needed to listen.
“She lived at home still. You know she was a student?” She clapped her hands onto her outstretched thighs. “My daughter was going to school to become an English teacher. Oh, how she loved to read when she was a child! I used to beg her to go outside and play. Then I’d find her in the yard under a tree, her knees drawn to her chin, blonde hair all in her face, and her head bent over a book.”
Like a 1920s Victorola, she was winding up to tell a story that was a part of who she was; a story, I suspected, that had been a long while since she had talked about it.
“Two years into her schooling she met a boy. It took us all by surprise. My husband said he wondered when that would happen, but then everything she did, she did in her own time. I told him there was lots of time. After all, she was only 22.” Her voice wavered.
“Only 22.” I’m here listening.
“She and this boy really got along. And we liked him. He had red hair. Imagine! I used to think about what their children would have looked like.”
She turned her head towards the window. “They both died in the accident. It wasn’t their fault. Someone crossed the line and hit them. That was 36 years ago.”
She paused. For both of us, I watched the snow fall. “The snow is swirling and twirling.”
“If only that window would open and I could take just one breath!” she said.
She sighed. “I haven’t looked at a picture of her since I lost my sight. I’m old and doddery and my eyes are forgetting. I used to sleep with her clothes tucked under my chin. Her smell was there for a long time and she felt close.
If I could just smell her one more time I know that I would see her face as clearly as if she were here now.”